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A New Push for Pedestrian Safety

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By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008

Fatal crashes involving pedestrians are increasing throughout the Washington area, sparking an education and law-enforcement campaign to make roads and intersections safer for people who walk and ride bicycles.

For the past month, buses and bus shelters in the region have been plastered with graphic drawings of a car with screeching tires slamming into a man in bluejeans who is crossing the street. The $400,000 advertising campaign, part of the "Street Smart" initiative sponsored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, has also included radio ads in English and Spanish.

The ads were to end Monday, but local governments and police are proceeding with a variety of pedestrian safety initiatives, including heightened traffic enforcement at busy intersections in Arlington County and improvements to sidewalks and pedestrian interchanges in Fairfax County.

"Pedestrian fatalities and injuries seem to be on the increase in many of our jurisdictions, especially our urbanizing suburban areas," said Penelope A. Gross, vice chairman of the Council of Governments, which has run periodic pedestrian safety campaigns over the past decade. "It's a significant issue for us, because in most cases these accidents can be avoided."

Although accidents involving drivers distracted by cellphones and other gadgets have received more publicity, Gross said many crashes are caused by "pedestrian error, not driver error. Quite often, we find that accidents are in the middle of a block where people just decided to dash across the road, and they're almost always wearing dark clothing."

Gross said drivers should be more alert to such sudden movements, and pedestrians "need to remember what we learned in kindergarten, what our parents and grandparents taught us: Stop, look and listen, look both ways before crossing the road and cross at the light."

Gross and police attributed the decrease in safe practices among pedestrians in part to the flood of immigrants and others who have moved to the Washington area in recent years. "I think what we're seeing is a lot of people new to our community, not used to the speed at which cars travel here, our wide roads, and they figure they can get across the road, but they can't," she said.

A recent study by Inova Fairfax Hospital found that many pedestrians involved in crashes are from "marginalized portions of society," including immigrants, the poor, minorities, the homeless and elderly people.

The study found that total regional pedestrian fatalities have increased after dipping to 65, the lowest figure in a decade, in 2004. In 2006, the last year for which statistics are available, 87 pedestrians were killed regionwide. Pedestrians account for about 25 percent of overall traffic fatalities in the area.

In Northern Virginia, pedestrian fatalities spiked from 17 in 2005 to 28 in 2006, according to separate data compiled by the Council of Governments. Of the 2006 fatalities, 18 were in Fairfax, seven were in Prince William County and one each occurred in Loudoun and Arlington counties and the city of Alexandria.

"We're trying to get the message out to motorists, bikers and walkers that they have a shared responsibility to share the road safely," said John Lisle, a spokesman for Arlington police, who stepped up traffic enforcement on busy streets including Columbia Pike and Glebe Road on two days last month.

During a March 10 crackdown in Rosslyn, police issued 60 tickets to motorists for making improper turns, failing to obey highway signs or failing to yield to pedestrians. Police also warned 30 bicyclists who didn't obey pedestrian signals and handed out 700 Street Smart brochures to cyclists and pedestrians.

Arlington has also changed traffic signals countywide to give pedestrians more time to cross. Fairfax has allocated $37 million for pedestrian and bus stop improvements and recently completed construction that improved sidewalks on roads including Route 1 and Little River Turnpike. Fairfax has also heightened police pedestrian safety enforcement and installed signs at more than 400 intersections to remind drivers to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks.

In Alexandria, police have participated in Street Smart by increasing enforcement of pedestrian safety laws, especially at the King Street, Braddock Road, Eisenhower Avenue and Van Dorn Street Metro stations.

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